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Ervine, St. John G. (St. John Greer) (1883-1971)
by Sullivan, Robert

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St. John Ervine 1883-1971

John Greer Irvine (usually St. John Ervine) was born in the working-class area of East Belfast, in what was to become Northern Ireland, not far from the shipyard that built the Titanic. His father died the year of his birth and although bright enough to pursue a university career (by choice Trinity College, Dublin), Irvine left school at 15 and became an insurance clerk, at first in Belfast, then in London where he moved in 1901. After a short time there, he fell among Fabians and eventually became involved in theatre. He met Yeats in London, a meeting that no doubt led to his play Mixed Marriage being performed at the Abbey in 1911. He became the Abbey manager in 1915 but was not popular, mainly because of his severe criticism of the quality of plays being produced. He joined the Dublin Fusiliers because (by some accounts) he was disgusted at the cheering and jeering at Casement's execution. He was wounded in Flanders and lost one of his legs. At this time Irvine was a strenuous advocate of Home Rule, despising Carson and his followers. He wrote a novel, Changing Winds (1917) that was partly a response to the Easter Rising and with avowed sentiments such as the following from his earlier Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Movement (1915) : “… and when Protestants and Catholics, Orangemen and Ancient Hibernians put their hands together, and the four beautiful fields of Cathleen ni Houlihan become one pasture, there will be no poisonous vapours left in Ireland [Carson and his followers] to obscure the destiny of Irishmen.” This notion of a Romantic Ireland was soon to be “dead and gone” for Irvine, however, and his vehement attacks on Carson and Ulster Unionism became transmorgified into a defiant defense of Ulsterdom. Thus, he could write in his Craigavon: Ulsterman (1949) : “the Ulster people were not, and are not, willing to turn away from a prominent partnership in a galaxy of nations to an introspective, obscurantist, Gaelic-speaking acricultural republic.” And in a letter to Shaw he condemned Ireland as a country of “bleating Celtic Twilighters, sex-starved Daughters of the Gael, gangsters and gombeen-men.” This from a man who, during his managership at the Abbey in 1915, had a member of the Castle administration (the site of British power) banned from the theatre because of the latter's objections to the “seditious” nature of the play For the Land She Loved.

Irvine became more and more entrenched in his Unionism to the extent that shortly after his death a confidante remarked that he had a “pathological hatred for the rest of Ireland.” Yet, even while his predilections faced in the contrary direction of Home Rule and the possibility of a united Ireland (roughly 1910—18), Irvine's creative force had distinctively Ulster characteristics. From his Abbey play Mixed Marriage, 1911 (the very title of which has a particular resonance in Northern Ireland), through his novels Mr. Martin's Man (1915) , The Foolish Lovers (1920) , and The Wayward Man (1927) , to later plays such as Boyd's Shop (1936) — the latter based on the shop his grandmother Mrs. Greer operated in Belfast—the voices and settings are pure Ulster. Nor did this early work go without notice: Rebecca West remarked on the publication of Mr. Martin's Man, that Irvine “proves himself quite definitely a novelist who counts,” and H.G. Wells called the same novel “amazingly good,” noting that it was “bad luck to publish it in the midst of this war.” Although he never had such a reputation, Irvine's naturalistic portrayal of Ulster urban and country life could bear comparison with George Moore's fictional world. He was most certainly the forerunner of what was to become that region's distinctive literary flavour.

Most likely it was his association with Shaw and the Fabians that resulted in Irvine's writing for The New Age. He ran a series called “Belfast and Poverty,” as well as other occasional essays. His piece “The Return to Belfast” (14.04) makes for a sad read (“I have never met anyone who was not depressed by Belfast”) because of the way it delineates a situation rife with sectarian division, and economic privation mainly because of that division, a situation that has changed only superficially today. His essay “The Inadequacy of Ibsen,” (14.17) may very well betray Irvine's reactionary nature, but it serves as a healthy antidote to the then current Ibsen worship. His short piece entitled “Rain,” (10.06), a reflection on beauty, art, and life, written while sojourning in Normandy, shows another side of Irvine's complex personality.

—Robert Sullivan


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